Velvet Hammer, |
(Glass Umbrella, 1999)
When a friend passed me a copy of Velvet Hammer's Come Down EP and told me it was a great pagan album, I was leery. I've heard a lot of albums in recent years which strive to catch the wave of neopaganism and new age crystalism, and relatively few of them are worth listening to twice.
Velvet Hammer manages to escape that trap, although why they settled on producing only a five-song EP is beyond me.
The band from Austin, Texas, has put together a short album of folk-rock (more rock than folk, actually) which avoids the prevalent temptation to bash listeners over the head with their faith. I don't put up with much proselytization in music, be it by Christian or pagan rockers, so I'm glad Velvet Hammer decided to take a more subtle approach. That's not to say they're hiding their faith under a rock, either; it's there, clear for all to see if they bother to look, but it's not a blatant assault on the listeners' beliefs. I suppose that's how they got their name; they slam their message home softly, like a hammer wrapped in velvet.
Don't take my use of the word "softly" wrong. This isn't an ambient band. If heard in a club or on the radio, they'd blend in quite nicely with a lot of the hard-edged rock on the market. There's nothing startlingly great or unique in their sound, but it's good, it's solid, and singers Ginger Doss and Lynda Millard lead the way with clear, strong vocals.
The liner notes list band members as Doss on vocals and keyboards, Millard on vocals, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, flute and ashiko, Tawney on drums and Nighthawk on djembe and percussion. Band membership must be somewhat fluid, however, as the two singularly named performers aren't featured very prominently on the album. Nighthawk is listed as a primary performer on the final two tracks, and Tawney joins the band for the last one only; both are listed as two among 17 members of a drum circle on the first track, too.
The band is dominated by singers and songwriters Doss and Millard, plus Mitch Watkins (guitars) and Pat Mastelotto (drums and percussion), who appear on all but the final track, yet aren't officially part of the band. It's a shame, because they seem to add a lot to the sound.
The EP begins with the title track, "Come Down," which uses the aforementioned drum circle to good effect. Over the sound of a primal beat, Doss sings what could almost be a love song, but in reality is a deific invocation. Her deeper voice is nicely accentuated by Millard's higher harmonies, plus instrumentation by Watkins and Mastelotto.
The same band lineup, minus the drum circle, holds together for "Blind," a lighter song about spiritual liberation, and "Fine," truly a love song led this time by Millard. Doss provides vocal harmonies which are somewhat reminiscent of the point/counterpoint singing of the Indigo Girls.
Nighthawk joins the band, along with Gina Fant-Saez on additional vocals and shakers, for "Window," an inspirational song about "fallen angels who've forgotten how to fly." The album wraps up with "Blessed Be," probably the most blatantly pagan song on the album and boasting one of the strongest melody lines sung by Millard.
The EP is made up entirely of originals (three by Doss, two by Millard). Velvet Hammer already has good vocals and good writing on its side; if the band works a little harder at polishing a more distinctive sound for itself, it could easily make a mark for itself. I look forward to hearing what they come up with next.
[ by Tom Knapp ]